How VR hacked my brain

HTC Vive with Leap Motion sensor attached

Earlier this year I was asked by one of our clients if I could help develop 3D and VR applications for them. Being a former game developer, I jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back. This has been my main occupation the last 8 months.

Granted, I’m not a VR expert quite yet, but I think I have some interesting observations to share.

When I started developing virtual reality applications I really didn’t know what to expect, but putting on an HTC Vive headset with controllers and room scale tracking blew me away! I could move around and interact with things in a way I had never experienced before.

The first surprising thing about making a VR application was how easy it was to get started. Valve provides a SteamVR Unity3D plugin that gets you up and running pretty fast, and there are loads of excellent tutorials online that help you get started with developing integrations. Of course, it takes a lot more to develop something that delivers value.

Before working with VR, I read that people get dizzy because of the disconnect between movement in VR and what the nerves in your inner tell you. I quickly discovered that moving around in VR using keyboard while actually sitting still in your office chair induces dizziness and nausea. The faster, the more dizzy. One solution to this is teleportation. Instead of gliding around, you point to where you want to go, and get instantly transported there. Your brain copes much better with this.

With experience the dizziness becomes less of a concern.

The weirdest thing that has happened to me was when I got a feeling of disconnect from my body after using VR for large parts of the day. I felt like I was floating around in the real world and my body was just an apparatus moving my head. Quite fascinating, and slightly unnerving. Apparently, it is a pretty common side effect.

A few weeks ago, I experienced something very cool. I loaded up a reconstructed real-life graveyard scene and walked around for an hour’s time being pretty impressed with the level of detail and the amount of photographs that had to be taken to create the scene. But that wasn’t the cool part. The cool part happened a few days after that experience, when I was telling a colleague about the graveyard. My brain had formed a memory of me being there, and I could remember the pathways and the layout of the graveyard based on the experience. That blew me away! This memory hack is one of the great features of VR.

I have also tried the Leap Motion sensor. It has a VR mode, where you attach it to your headset and it can track your hands and finger movements. This means you can use your hands in VR to do stuff, without special gloves. It is a pretty cool technology with great potential, but it has severe limitations as of now. It has a limited range and field of view, and it is not very precise. Other than that, I love it!

Me playing with the HTC Vive and Leap Motion in my test scene.

I have friends working with VR games. They have had a lot of fun exploring the possibilities, and they see the potential. The problem right now is that the install base for VR games that need an Oculus or Vive (and beefy hardware) just isn’t big enough yet to make much money. So a lot of companies, including Oculus, Valve and NVidia have been turning towards the enterprise market looking for opportunities. There is a lot going on outside of gaming.

I think there could be a lot of wins for companies that are willing to take a look at virtual reality. Cost savings could be achieved through VR training, online collaboration in VR worlds, being able to simulate unusual situations in a safe environment, spatial awareness, and so on. Mental health institutes are using VR in research in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I think that it won’t take long until VR is just another tool that we use for certain kinds of problems.

As a developer it sometimes seems like we are still bumbling along trying to find out what works, but we are getting there. VR hardware and rendering capabilities are going to get better, but as John Carmack pointed out in his day 2 keynote at Oculus Connect a recently; we need to get the current hardware to work if we want VR to work. We can’t sit around waiting for the next dual 4k displays and more rendering power to save us. We need to refine what we have now and make it great. Then it will be even better on new hardware.

Have fun, experiment, and take VR to bold new places!